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Where Would We Be Without Mill?

March 29, 2011

In J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, he discusses the idea of whether or not people should be allowed to express their opinions freely even if those opinions are unpopular and go against “the norm.”  He stated that silencing such people and their opinions would be detrimental to society because those unpopular opinions may turn out to be true and it would get rid of the possibility for debate.  Fortunately, everyone enjoys freedom of expression in the United States.  However, I firmly believe that this freedom, along with many others, is grossly under-appreciated and taken for granted.  I completely understand how easy it is to take this freedom for granted because it is so normal and commonplace in our society and we couldn’t imagine life without it.  Having said that, I think it is important to do so — to imagine life without freedom of expression.

First of all, if we weren’t allowed to express unpopular beliefs and opinions there would be one religion, regardless of how you feel about it.  Everyone would decide on rituals, practices, and number and characteristics of gods.  In addition, we wouldn’t have the multi-party system of government.  There would essentially be one party that creates the platform and policies that must be accepted as truth.  Also, we wouldn’t even have elections since there would be no discrepancy between beliefs and opinions.  Education as we know it would certainly not exist.  I imagine that everyone would still go to school but there would be no discussion, period.  Everyone would sit at a desk and listen to the teacher lecture and accept everything he/she said as fact.  Creativity would also be nonexistent.  Everyone would agree on what “art” and “music” should be and there would be no room for trying different things and different methods.

Do you think you would like living in this type of society?  I certainly would not, but unfortunately, there are many people in this world who live in these societies.  They are ruled by dictators who tell them what to do, how to think, and who to pray to, and there is very little they can do about it.  Even if someone tried to make a change, he/she would most likely be murdered.

Mill’s theory on expression is the reason why we enjoy our lives so much in America and why we are currently seeing citizens of middle eastern countries rise up against their oppressive governments.  Freedom of expression is the essence of life, and without it, our lives would be extremely dull and monotonous.  But then again, since everything would be accepted as the only way of doing things, would we even notice or care?

4 Comments
  1. Gem permalink
    March 30, 2011 11:59 AM

    You seem to have quite a distorted view about American society if you believe it to as pluralistic as you seem to make out – “Fortunately, everyone enjoys freedom of expression in the United States.”
    What do you take freedom of expression to be? What if you are completely politically marginalised, as many in America are? What if your voice and opinion is completely ignored; you have no platform to enter into an effective debate?

  2. AlexKasnetz... permalink
    March 30, 2011 1:23 PM

    There are many things I agree with on this post. Taking both political theory and philosophy, I have come to understand that JS Mill is one of the foremost thinkers that has influenced our time. However, it is a bit overstated to say that without Mill we would not have our current systems of government. Furthermore, to say that “creativity would not exist” without Mill’s theories on expression is an exaggeration. His ideas certainly have a great impact on our modern conceptions of these ideals and society as a whole. But there are many other thinkers, many of whom we have explored in polsci 101, that have impacted the evolution of society to simliar degrees. More importantly, I feel that Mill often articulates with clarity the natural tendencies that we innately have and that the arc of history has shown to be leading towards. He certainly championed freedom of expression far ahead of his time, but this does not mean it would not exist without his contributions. In conclusion, Mill is one of the great theorists of all time, and his contributions have absolutely changed our modern society in significant ways. But to say that without him these ideals would simply not exist or would not manifest themselves is slightly exaggerated. Despite my objections, I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

  3. March 30, 2011 2:10 PM

    Very intersting view point on how our world would be today without the existence of Mill. George Orwell had a similar idea to what you are thinking back when he wrote the book “1984”. We all accept whats going on, and we can’t make opinions. The only problem is Orwell had people thinking outside the realm of what was considered acceptable in the community. If Mill were to never exisist there would still probably be some debate. Just like Rousseau mentioned, it only takes one person to have a different viewpoint to change the whole course of things. In this case, only one person would have to deviate from the system and cause some havoc, wondering where their “freedom” is. But as for now, lets just be happy for what we do have today.

  4. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    April 5, 2011 11:59 PM

    Actually, I’m not really certain that I see eye to eye with your interpretation of freedom of speech and a one-sided argument that Mill did not place limits on that freedom of speech. It’s important to point out that Mill did indeed argue that freedom of speech is constrained in that it should no no harm to another. For instance, consider this sentence: ‘An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard’. I believe that your interpretation is based on an isolated reading of Mill and that you should really consider how the other paragraphs, fit together when making an interpretation. When Mill states that ‘… may justly incur punishment…’, he is not indicating that the opinions are just, rather he is saying that IF those opinions are given outside a corn-dealer’s house in front of the mob etc, it would cause harm to the corn-dealer, hence, it should be forbidden. Hence, freedom of speech is permitted insofar as it does no harm.

    Second, I think it might be an over-assumption that ‘everybody enjoys freedom of expression in the United States’. That statement holds true on various grounds though – everybody enjoys freedom of expression in the US relative to N. Korea etc. But the question is whether everybody enjoys a freedom of expression WITHIN the country, and between groups.

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